The new temples of art

February 2 1987

The new temples of art

February 2 1987

The new temples of art


In the field of the fine arts, Paris and Los Angeles are more than just half a world apart. The City of Light has long been a pre-eminent centre for sculpture and painting. That reputation has been enhanced by the opening of the massive Musée d’Orsay, a glass and cast-iron shrine for 19th-century art, housed in the abandoned Gare d’Orsay railway station.

Conversely, the City of Angels has been better known for tinsel and glitter than for cultural attractions. But in recent weeks Los Angeles has made two important contributions to the world’s inventory of fine art museums: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACM A ), which i n -

creased its exhibition space by half, adding a new wing for 20th-century art; and the city’s stylish Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), which opened in December.

On both continents, the new muse-

ums are an attempt to overcome longstanding cultural gaps. Despite its many fine public art collections, Paris has never had a proper setting to display the French government’s enviable collection of 19th-century works. The art, at times housed in more than a dozen museums, includes 2,300 paintings and 1,500 sculptures. In 1978 the French government finally seized the opportunity to develop a new home for the collection, and later hired Italian architect Gae Aulenti to convert the long-unused railway station into the Musée d’Orsay.

In Los Angeles local art collectors and civic officials were anxious to erase the city’s stigma as a cultural wasteland. After a series of discussions, they decided to blend private collections and public resources to create two new facilities for the arts. The results have delighted most critics—and captivated throngs of gallery-goers.

The Parisian museum amounts to the splendid resetting of an architectural jewel. Built by architect Victor Laloux in 1898, the Gare d’Orsay—across the Seine River from the Louvre—was downgraded to a commuter station in 1939, the victim of changes in railway technology, and finally closed in 1969. In 1971 then-president Georges Pompidou’s government issued a demolition order for the magnificent edifice. But the building was spared, largely as a result of the 1977 opening of the futuristic Pompidou Centre. A chorus of derision greeted the aggressive modernity of the Pompidou design, and a public movement rallied to save the beloved but decaying Gare d’Orsay. When Valéry Giscard d’Estaing succeeded Pompidou, he commissioned a museum for 19th-century art in the stately expanse of the empty railway station.

Despite the unlikely setting, architect Aulenti has capitalized on the building’s virtues—allowing natural light to stream through Laloux’s ironribbed, glass-vaulted ceiling. Even the enclosed spaces, such as the corridor where painter Jean-François Millet’s realist masterpieces L Angelus and Les Glaneuses hang, give the impression of being lit by the sky. “What I tried to do was achieve something uniformly close to natural light,” Aulenti told Maclean ’s.

But while most critics applaud Aulenti’s lighting design, some have z faulted her approach to g the 450-foot-long hall i where railway tracks x once lay. On either side 1 of a central sculpture

corridor, massive stone slabs—bearing an unsettling resemblance to ramparts—divide the great hall into separate galleries. And at one end, two high stone towers rise like turrets of some space-age castle. Observed French artist Charles-Henri Monvert: “The watchtow-

ers are very heavy and don’t work well. Frankly, it’s neo-Nazi architecture.” While the Musée d’Orsay puts a lustrous polish on old-world splendors, Los Angeles is emerging as a brave new world of 20th-century art. Completion of the $49-million Robert 0. Anderson wing of LACMA and the $32-million MOCA signal Los Angeles’s arrival as a formidable power on the modern art scene. They also have a whiff of Hollywood glamor about them: the Anderson Building’s outsize 50-foot-high rectangular portal reminds some visitors of a backdrop from a Cecil B. DeMille epic. And Arata Isozaki, MOCA’s Japanese architect, said his building’s undulating white-tiled walls pay homage to the curves of Marilyn Monroe.

LACMA’s real emergence as a showcase for 20th-century art began in 1981, when the museum announced plans to build its new contemporary wing—115,000 square feet of exhibition and office space. But for some Angelenos, the limestone-and-white tile edifice, banded with glass bricks and glazed green terracotta, performs an even more welcome function: it partially masks LACMA’s original complex of three drab modernist boxes built by architect William Pereira in 1964. Most critics say that they dislike the Anderson building’s 300-footlong facade, but they acclaim its lightfilled interiors. Wedge-shaped galleries of glass bricks provide a dramatic set-

ting for works, including Korean-born artist Nam June Paik’s Video Flag z, a composite of the American flag produced on 84 stacked television screens, and Jonathan Borofsky’s metal sculpture Hammering Men.

In comparison to LACMA, with its

staff of 400 and an annual budget of $29 million, MOCA has only 75 fulland parttime employees and an operating budget of $9 million. But MOCA compensates for its smaller size with freewheeling initiative. Three years ago, the gallery opened in a former police car repair shop in Los Angeles’ lively Little Tokyo district. Renovated by Toronto-born Los Angeles-based architect Frank Gehry, the 55,000-square-foot building was immediately nicknamed T.C.—the Temporary Contemporary. It proved so popular that MOCA will continue operating it in addition to its new home.

MOCA’s new location is one of the first completed buildings in the California Plaza project, a $1.7-billion commercial complex in the inner-city Bunker Hill district designed by Vancouver architect Arthur Erickson. Critics have hailed Isozaki’s MOCA structure as a fresh and accessible work of genius. The interplay of geometric forms on the exterior combines rough red sandstone blocks with smooth green aluminum panels crosshatched in hot pink. Inside, natural light pours into the galleries though pyramidal skylights. Works on display include canvases by Mark Rothko, Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock and other major artists of the 20th century, many of them from the collection of Italian Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, a MOCA board member. MOCA is now buying Panza’s collection at a cost of $15

million—a large sum in relation to the museum’s resources.

Los Angeles’future as a major new art centre seems assured by plans for still another major museum. Officials of the J. Paul Getty Trust, a $3.8 billion arts fund, plan to build the J. Paul Getty Centre—a $100 million complex that will include a new museum. The west Los Angeles complex is scheduled to open in 1993. Art scholars have hailed the development as further evidence of the city’s coming-of-age.

Meanwhile, the new temples of art are attracting scores of worshippers. LACMA officials say attendance has doubled to an average of 4,000 visitors daily since the opening of the Anderson building. MOCA is drawing about 3,000 visiz tors a day. And in Paris, 8 response to the d’Orsay’s 7 encyclopedic collection 1 has been overwhelming: 3 more than 400,000 visi| tors have already flocked 3 to the museum. On the West Coast and the Left Bank, the new museums have made broad and indelible strokes on the canvas of the city.

— PAMELA YOUNG in Toronto with ANNE GREGOR in Los Angeles and ANNE TREMBLAY in Paris



1 Whirlwind, Clavell (1)

2 It, King (2)

3 The Progress of Love, Munro (3)

4 A Taste for Death, James (U)

5 The Telling of Lies, Findley (5)

6 Hollywood Husbands, Collins (6)

7 The Queen's Secret, Templeton (7)

8 The Eyes of the Dragon, King

9 Bolt, Francis (8)

10 The Night of the Fox, Higgins (9)


1 His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra, Kelley (1)

2 Vimy, Berton (2)

3 Lions in Winter,

Goyens and Turowetz U)

4 Controlling Interest: Who Owns Canada?, Francis (5)

5 Fatherhood, Cosby (6)

6 Memoirs, Levesque (3)

7 The Story of English, McCrum,

Cran & MacNeil (7)

8 The Master Builders, Foster (8)

9 The Rainmaker, Davey (9)

10 Out of Character,

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( ) Position last week —Compiled by Frances McNeely